In Seoul, modernity stops and pay homage to a millenary practice

“As an exercise of the whole body, Ssireum fosters the cultivation of the body and mind. It also encourages mutual respect and cooperation, contributing to the harmony and cohesion of communities and groups”

(UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage report)

Extrap yourself from the hyper-technological South Korean world. Distance yourself from neon lights, endless skyscrapers and an electronic society. Go back in time, forget the concept of ‘Asian Tiger’, chaebol and futurist finance.

Listen, feel the sand at your feet, the muscular strength of a tense body, the unspeakable power released by the contact of two individuals. It is the Ssireum, it is a practice lost in time, in tradition. It is a sporting grip on the ancient world, on an increasingly distant and evanescent past.

Wrestling, sculptural art, human struggle against time. Fred MacGregor introduces us to this fascinating South Korean practice. Enjoy his shots and his words.

I shot a project on Ssireum, a form of folk wreslting. This is a tradional sport spanning thousands of years and its a really interesting counterpoint to the idea that many people have of Korea as a super-modern state.

In early 2020, an assignment took me to the incredible city of Seoul, South Korea. Such opportunities don’t come around every day, so I set about learning a bit more about my destination. Some of the more well-known Korean cultural exports (like food, technology and music) are very contemporary, or at least don’t explicitly reference their heritage. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering the rapid modernisation of the Republic from the 1960’s onward. The shocking speed at which paddy fields were replaced by high-rise buildings in places like Gangnam arguably led to a de-coupling of Korean people from their recent, more traditional past.

The tradition of Ssireum goes back to before the Common Era, its popularity waxing and waning even after the organisation of a professional body in the 20th Century. In 2018 Ssireum was Inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Thanks to the Korean Ssireum Association, I was privileged to be invited to Yong In University in order to watch the next generation of Ssireum wrestlers. This short monograph shows a glimpse into the culture around Ssireum, I hope that the people captured on these pages go on to push the sport further forwards.


Ph & Text Fred MacGregor
IG @freddie_macgregor